OK, the title is a bit misleading. Nothing is truly cheap at the Disneyland resort, unless you count the bag of rubber pin backs you can buy for the bargain price of $1. But dining at Downtown Disney doesn't have to be a painfully expensive experience if you know where to look.
La Brea Bakery
The restaurant closest to the parks is La Brea Bakery, which has a takeout counter next to its sit-down restaurant.
Most of the sandwiches at La Brea Bakery are ready-made and displayed in glass cases, along with baked goods. Photo by Lisa Perkis.
The bakery serves sandwiches, soup in a bread bowl, hot dogs, salads and drinks. The grilled sandwiches are particularly good, especially the ham and cheese. Most of the lunch items cost between $6 and $7.
La Brea is also a very popular spot for breakfast. They serve scrambled eggs and breakfast sandwiches along with muffins, Danishes and specialty coffees. The lines often stretch out door before the parks open.
Next to the takeout counter is a shady table area to relax in and watch the people streaming from the trams towards the parks.
Even on a hot day, the picnic tables along the Esplanade have shade thanks to the pepper trees and umbrellas. Photo by Lisa Perkis.
Heading up the sidewalk towards the Disneyland Hotel is Napolini, the newest addition to the Downtown Disney eateries. This Italian deli is pretty reasonable, serving hot and cold sandwiches, salads, baked macaroni and cheese, lasagna, pizza by the slice, and calzones. It also offers a frittata made with zucchini, goat cheese and pancetta bacon. Like La Brea, Napolini offers pastries and hot breakfasts that vary daily. The prices range from $6 for sandwiches to over $9 for the lasagna.
Interior of Napolini. A few places to sit, or just ask for a to-go container. Photo by Lisa Perkis.
Napolini does not have an outdoor table area, and indoor seating is a bit scarce, but the price is right for a quick lunch or dinner, and the takeout bag can travel anywhere.
A bit farther up and close to Napolini is Wetzel's Pretzels. Some may argue that what Wetzel's serves is more snacks than a full meal, but the Wetzel dog is filling and easy to eat while strolling a good thing, since there are no tables.
Wetzel's Pretzel's. Just like you're at the mall! Photo by Lisa Perkis.
An extra bonus is the 20 percent off the company offers to Premium Annual Passholdersthe highest of any restaurant or store in Downtown Disney. The food is not something to write home about, but it's easy on the wallet: a Wetzel dog combo (with dog and soda) costs around $6. Don't let the long lines that stretch out the door most afternoons discourage you; they move fairly quickly.
Jazz Kitchen Express
Still farther up is the Jazz Kitchen Express, Ralph Brennan's takeout offering. This takeout counter is on the more expensive scale of cheap eats, but makes up for it with the excellent variety and quality of food.
The Jazz Kitchen Express storefront and the iron tables and chairs. Photo by Lisa Perkis.
A meal costs around nine bucks for a po-boy sandwich or jambalaya. The children's meals are corn dogs and fries, or a crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwichsomething that might be comforting for children who might be suspicious of all the new foods they've been eating while on vacation. And of course, the beignets and bread pudding are worth mentioning, as they are good for breakfast or dessert.
Customers can watch the beignets being made to order in the Express. Photo by Lisa Perkis.
Jazz Kitchen Express has iron chairs and tables in front of the entrance and a few more in a gated area near the exit of the takeout counter. Since the main restaurant is just right next door, you can listen to its live jazz music in the evenings from the Jazz Kitchen Express seating area for a fraction of what you would pay for dinner in the sit-down restaurant.
Unfortunately, word is that the portions at Express have gotten smaller recently. Depending on what you get, however, it might still be a good deal.
The last inexpensive eatery is technically not a part of Downtown Disney, but part of the Grand Californian. Whitewater Snacks is a counter-service restaurant across from the pool area of the hotel, and well worth the extra stroll through the beautiful hotel to reach it. Whitewater is rarely crowded, even when the crowds are thick in the parks, and the warm wood tones and natural lighting makes the little eatery a nice place to sit and relax for a while.
The dining area of Whitewater at rush hour. Photo by Lisa Perkis.
The restaurant offers cold items like salads and fruit plates, and hot meals like cheeseburgers, French dips, and pizza. They also have a hot breakfast menu as well as muffins and pastries. For guests that come often to the resort, a Whitewater mug (a little under $8) that can be refilled for free is a nice little investment. A meal costs you anywhere from $4.50 to $7.
You can enjoy the biggest savings by simply bringing your own cooler to the park. The shaded picnic area located to the left of the Disneyland entrance area offers its own locker area as well as another locker area (and conveniently located restrooms) nearby. Just make sure to use smaller coolers, since there are only a limited number of extra-large locker units. The soda vending machines in the picnic area are not always filled (or working correctly), so consider bringing your own drinks (frozen to help keep your food cold), or pick up sodas at the resort area. Once you rent a locker, it's yours for the day, so you can stash your cooler back in the same locker when you are done with lunch.
Even if you're staying at one of the nearby hotels or parking at the Mickey & Friends parking structure, storing lunch and snackables in a nearby locker will help you save time if you don't plan on returning to your room (or car) during the day.
For just a fraction of the money you save by not eating lunch out, consider getting your family a special treat, such as chocolate-covered strawberries or truffles from Marceline's, or a rich ice cream cone from Häagen-Dazs. These desserts will help you feel decadent without feeling like a cheapskate for bringing lunch from home.
So which restaurant has the best cheap eats?
Depends on who you talk to. Napolini is still too new to have much of a following, but park veterans all have their favorite haunts. I prefer the quiet atmosphere of Whitewater, but cannot resist the beignets at the Jazz Kitchen Express. Others swear by the sandwiches on freshly baked bread at La Brea. All of the restaurants mentioned provide a filling meal for under $10 per person including drink, so try them out and find your favorite as well.